Ride the Mus­tang

High-al­ti­tude moun­tain bik­ing in the Hi­malayas

Canadian Cycling Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Steve Thomas

To say that Mus­tang took my breath away would be a gasp­ing un­der­state­ment. In ev­ery sense of the phrase, this high-rise an­cient Hi­malayan land did just that. My real jour­ney started in Pokhara, which is about 100 km south of my base in the Mus­tang re­gion and about 200 km north­west of Nepal’s cap­i­tal, Kath­mandu. It had been 20 years since I was in Nepal. Ev­ery­thing was far more de­vel­oped, but in a good way. There were some great com­forts be­tween wild rides into the moun­tains. Sadly for Pokhara, the dreaded smog, smoke and dust that plagues Kath­mandu also seems to fall over the town. I found it un­bear­able. Tak­ing a 10-hour dusty, bumpy dirt road ride from Pokhara through the An­na­purna foothills to Jom­som (which is some 2,800 m above sea-level) seemed like a con­ve­nient es­cape plan. In hind­sight, the 20-minute

morn­ing flight would have been a much wiser op­tion, but at least I did see some in­ter­est­ing sights along the way. The last part of the drive would make for a great ride back to­ward Pokhara.

An arid, desert-like, windswept area sur­rounded by neck-strain­ing snow-capped peaks lay at the end of that dusty drive. Rum­bling out of the nar­row val­ley and onto the higher, more open val­ley plains of Lower Mus­tang is al­most like pass­ing into an­other world.

It was a holy week, right af­ter the Nepalese New Year in mid-april. The area was at its most busy with pil­grims mak­ing their way to the shrine at Muk­ti­nath, which, at 3,700 m high, sits perched way above Jom­som. This ex­o­dus was great to see, but it did mean that there was traf­fic around, which causes some se­ri­ous dust at times.

Jom­som is a small one-yak kind of place, with lim­ited elec­tric­ity and fa­cil­i­ties, a dis­tinct moun­tain chill and a very Ti­betan feel to it. The Mus­tang re­gion used to be the King­dom of Lo. It can evoke James Hil­ton’s 1933 novel Lostho­ri­zon.

Early starts are es­sen­tial here as the wind builds by late morn­ing, cre­at­ing dust clouds and mak­ing the go­ing very tough. As we rode out into the chilled morn­ing air, the sky was a per­fect blue. We could see faded, snow-cov­ered peaks ris­ing to­ward 7,000 m high in most di­rec­tions.

There’s a wide and rough, dry riverbed lead­ing away from Jom­som, which makes for a com­par­a­tively gen­tle in­tro­duc­tion to the rid­ing here – a time for ac­clima­ti­za­tion for most, but not for us. We were on our own two-wheeled pil­grim­age to the dizzy and heart-pump­ing heights of Muk­ti­nath, which should be two to three days of rid­ing away, all of it up­hill. We skipped much of the climb­ing to seek out the vastly more fun high-ground sin­gle­track, and of course the de­scend­ing.

As we were cherry pick­ing our rides around this lu­narlike val­ley, I stopped dead in my tracks. Our thun­der had been stolen by an old man on a steel road­ster. He was de­scend­ing one-footed like a de­mon back down into the val­ley. He’d pushed and ped­alled his way to the shrine and was head­ing back to, well, ex­actly where I have no idea. What a sight – a true Hi­malayan flyer.

Muk­ti­nath was to be the high point of our rid­ing: from there on it was all down­hill. The scenery was stun­ning, and the rid­ing wasn’t far be­hind ei­ther. There are deep val­leys with su­perbly nat­u­ral and very tech­ni­cal sin­gle­track spun around ev­ery cor­ner. It’s an ab­so­lute par­adise.

“Jom­som is a small one-yak kind of place.”

Get­ting there and around Many air­lines fly to Kath­mandu, and some have healthy bag­gage al­lowances, which is great for bikes. Look to Emi­rates or Qatar Air­ways.

Get­ting from Kath­mandu to Pokhara is best done by a na­tional flight. There are var­i­ous air­lines and many flights on this route ev­ery day at around us$120 each way (35 min­utes). Yeti Air­lines ( yeti­air­lines.com) is a good choice here. The ktm do­mes­tic ter­mi­nal is a five-minute walk up­hill from the main in­ter­na­tional ter­mi­nal.

It is pos­si­ble to take a bus or minibus, which takes around nine hours. This op­tion is much cheaper (around $25), but is of­ten un­com­fort­able and cramped.

To get to Mus­tang, you should take one of the morn­ing flights from Pokhara (around us$100 each way). It takes just 20 min­utes. On a clear day, you get some of the best moun­tain views on Earth. Rid­ing at least half of the way back is a good choice.

Where to stay Pokhara is crammed with small ho­tels and guest­houses of ev­ery pos­si­ble stan­dard, with most be­ing around the main lake­side area. The best op­tion is to book through one of the sites on­line, and then look around when you ar­rive. For around $15, you will get a rea­son­able en­suite room in a bud­get place. Ex­pect dou­ble that amount for moun­tain views and more com­fort.

In Mus­tang, prices rise with the al­ti­tude (around 30 per cent) and things are a tad more ba­sic.

Food and drink Pokhara has a wide se­lec­tion of great restau­rants – both Nepalese and in­ter­na­tional. Even up in Mus­tang, you will see just about ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble on menus, al­though the re­al­ity may be far from au­then­tic when it comes to western dishes.

Most Nepalese eat dalb­hat at least twice a day, and rarely try any­thing else. Dalb­hat is ba­si­cally a Thali-style dish with rice and small serv­ings of var­i­ous fresh veg­eta­bles, and of­ten a meat curry and dal. Ex­pect to pay around $8 to $12 for a meal, plus drinks. Visas and per­mits If you can get to a Nepal Em­bassy to get a visa in ad­vance, that’s great. For most na­tion­al­i­ties, visas for as long as three months are avail­able at the air­port on ar­rival, but it can be a slow process. Be sure to have U.S. dol­lars to pay for visas, and also al­ways have a stash of re­cent pass­port pho­tos. To en­ter Lower Mus­tang and the An­na­purna re­gion, you will need a Trekkers’ In­for­ma­tion Man­age­ment Sys­tems (tims) card, which you must get at the small of­fice in Pokhara or Kath­mandu be­fore set­ting off. This is easy and cheap to ar­range (around us$20). Check out tim­snepal.com. If you want to visit Up­per Mus­tang, then things are a lot more ex­pen­sive and com­pli­cated. The pa­per­work is best done through a tour com­pany. You need to be part of a tour group. The per­mit fee is us$500 for 10 days.

When to go Weather and con­di­tions vary dra­mat­i­cally through­out the year, and in dif­fer­ent re­gions of Nepal. Peak sea­son for tourism is Oc­to­ber to May, with a lull around Christ­mas time.

June to Septem­ber is mon­soon time: not great for vis­it­ing Pokhara or Mus­tang (which does not get much rain, but can be cut off). Air pol­lu­tion is be­com­ing a se­ri­ous is­sue through­out Nepal, es­pe­cially af­ter long dry spells, when for­est fires flare up.

The prime time for Pokhara seems to be from Septem­ber to Novem­ber. Af­ter that, you could strike un­lucky with air pol­lu­tion (as I did), al­though a good rain will clear things for a week or so at a time. Mus­tang should be good to ride right through the dry sea­son.

Guide­lines Pokhara re­ally has es­tab­lished it­self as some­thing of a moun­tain bike mecca. Right out of town you have some su­perb trails of just about ev­ery grade – all nat­u­ral and not ris­ing too high. Pokhara is also the gate­way to some of Nepal’s best rid­ing. With Mus­tang less than half an hour away by air, Pokhara makes for a great base. The best rid­ing in Mus­tang is def­i­nitely in Lower Mus­tang, but you re­ally will need a guide to be able to find the prime sin­gle­track routes. Pokhara is very well set up for bik­ers, with Pokhara Moun­tain Bike Ad­ven­ture ( nepal­moun­tain­bike.com) lead­ing the way in all as­pects. The com­pany is very much ded­i­cated to all-moun­tain cov­ers some XC.

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